Claus Sluter, from the tomb of Philip the Bold

I was 14, a freshman in high school, and an atheist. My youthful and vibrant faith had splintered in the face of immense physical suffering. That made religion class at my Catholic school a mournful daily experience. Mrs. Miko was my teacher.

Mrs. Miko was a tiny middle-aged woman, shorter even than me. Soft-spoken yet intense, with a diminutive gentleness often mistaken for weakness. She was a cancer survivor. And she fixed her sights on me very early. Cancer survivors have for years been able to pick me out of a crowd. Though not a victim of that awful affliction, I apparently bear its psychological markers. Cancer survivors to this day will pull me aside and ask me what cancer I had, though I have said nothing. Mrs. Miko noticed my agony. It was not so difficult then as it would be now – I am much healthier now than I was then. At the time I was always missing class. I attended perhaps half of high school. The rest of my days were spent at home, in pain, or in hospitals.

I was a freshman. Impossibly shy by nature and, in the haze of suffering, further twisted inward upon myself. I was a crumbled tower of silence. I was an atheist.

By that time, I had seen difficult things. (And would see more.) One memory in particular sticks out: I was waiting in a side room at a hospital, waiting for a scan of some sort. CAT scan maybe, or MRI, or something. I was exhausted, and I slumped in my chair and waited with my parents. A nurse came through the door with a wheelchair, pushing a graying woman into the room with the rest of us. I remember the way that woman lay crumpled in the chair, head crooked against its back. She moaned. I remember her eyes, the dark and blank look. She stared at the ceiling, moaning. I thought to myself, “She wants to die.”

I was thirteen.

I had nightmares about that woman days and days afterward.

Things like this affected me in profound ways.

When I was young, I had a lively faith. I had experiences, joyful experiences, that I would not quite call mystical and would not quite call ordinary. God was living and active everywhere. I was aware of Him as one might be aware of sounds, touches, smells. After illness devastated my body, those experiences vanished forever. I reached for God, desperation rising, and silence greeted me.

After struggling for a long time – it felt like ages, years, but chronology is almost impossible to sift through in these memories – I surrendered. There must be no God. Those youthful experiences must have been a lie. There could be no God, or if there was, He did not care about us. Certainly not about me, as I suffered immense pain and cried out for divine comfort.

I was one of the saddest young atheists you could meet. Others my age, my peers that I observed from the mountainous solitude of sickness, also decided there was no God. Their words were edged with rebellion in the midst of their conflict. My decision, my conflict, bore no such edge. I resigned with sorrow to the idea of a world without meaning. There was only a world of suffering. I did not see anything to rejoice over, and felt no exhilaration. I was not an advanced or determined atheist, and had reached nothing like maturity. I knew only my own suffering. The landscape of my mind was stripped bare, as a forest after a terrible fire.

I told no one of my loss. I did not see anything to rejoice over.

And there stood Mrs. Miko, at the front of the class, describing joy and mercy to us.

She was an enigma to me. She had endured terrible suffering, and I could see that with almost frightening ease. I knew the look, could recognize it from my hospital visits. But there was something strange about her. She smiled real smiles. My fellow students mistook her as sugary. I never did. There was a somber and insane courage about her happiness. It puzzled and frightened me.

She told us stories, sometimes, about her cancer. How difficult it had been, and how God had been with her. I listened as one might listen to a fairy story: yearning for its truth, but disbelieving.

Mrs. Miko spoke with me frequently before class. Hers was the first class of my day. She asked me how I was, sometimes. Other times she told me about her day. She treated me like a human being, always. I grew close to her for that alone. She never stuck me with needles, or stared at me.

There is something of paranoia in sickness, especially from a teenager. I was comically bereft of the knowledge that I was just as ridiculous as my peers. My vanity was to pretend that I suffered as no one else did. I was an idiot, just as much as any young person is. But I was too proud to see it.

Mrs. Miko had no pride to protect. She did not care about my paranoia and insane sensitivity, my vain darkness. Her warmth defied my scowls. Oh, how she confused me.

We talked about the Eucharist. How Christ’s redemptive suffering always reaches us, and tangibly. We read the sorrowing psalms. We talked about St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Anyone who considers the Little Flower soft has not read her writings with care. Beneath the sugary words rests courage so immense as to terrify weaker souls such as mine. I was bewildered at her devotion to the Eucharist, her yearning to suffer with Christ in sacramental unity. Most of all, I could not understand her joy, her faith. Her trust. Who could trust?

The littleness of Thérèse was one thing, I think, that finally drew me. I understood increasingly how it was a Eucharistic littleness, a trust in God’s presence to us in the Sacrament. She saw no greatness but God’s, and yet this gave her courage. This moved me in ways still mysterious to me. Observe her attitude, for example, here in Story of a Soul:

I still feel the same daring confidence that one day I shall become a great Saint. I am not trusting in my own merits, for I have none; but I trust in Him Who is Virtue and Holiness itself. It is He alone Who, pleased with my feeble efforts, will raise me to Himself, and, by clothing me with His merits, make me a Saint.

It dawned on me that my world was all backwards. That I did not know what it meant to have no merits, and yet to trust that God does. I thought I knew that I had no merit – sickness will drive that from you right quick – but I held onto that loss as if it were my only merit. My mark of uniqueness. My barren world was my crown.

I realized, however, that all the world is that way already. That, as far as the Little Flower was concerned, this barrenness was but the ground and opportunity God’s great mercy: to make our empty hands full. He had made us poor, and only in poverty could we be exalted. Poverty was not to be resented, but embraced.

My world turned upside-down. I had it all wrong. All wrong. I could barely comprehend. I had resented God for poverty, but now poverty was mercy?

It was insane, or true.

I cannot argue to you now, nor then, how it is true. The revelation of poverty is reasonable, it makes sense of the world, but it is not a thing to be reasoned into. Only by grace did I come to grasp it as true. To see my sickly poverty as the barren ground for mercy. To understand that One on the cross as the most poor. It is either insane or true.

And, as with the Little Flower, it means a surrender that is the opposite of resignation. It is courageous. It does not sit still. Thérèse joined her cloister not to run from the world, but to seek its wounded heart.

Faith slowly broke through the cracked ground of my own heart. I can remember no single moment, no great dawn. God’s grace is an abiding secret, even in its most earth-shattering expressions.

I chose the Little Flower as my confirmation saint.

Though I can claim none of this as comfort – that is far too easy a word – and though I had yet to feel further necessary poverties (and still have yet), still I see God’s mercy in all of it. I see better what it means to come to God with empty hands. That it is not bad, or evil, but honest and brave and graced. Suffering, which always refuses easy answers, which always isolates, never renders us so far from God that we cannot be reached. We are never broken beyond redemption. My strange emptiness through suffering, which has no easy answers, did not orphan me from God.

There is yet room to give yourself, broken as you are. Spend everything, even your brokenness.

“It is quite simple,” says Thérèse, “lay nothing by, spend your treasures as you gain them. . . . Love will consume us only in the measure of our self-surrender.”